‘Dr. Phil’ Autopsy in the Rebecca Zahau Case
This week the talk show will air the results of a controversial autopsy in a celebrated California case. Christine Pelisek on the made-for-TV spectacle.
On Thursday, the Dr. Phil show will air the results of a second autopsy on the 32-year-old girlfriend of pharmaceutical mogul Jonah Shacknai, whose body was found hanging nude, her hands and feet bound, from a second story balcony at the historic Spreckels mansion in Coronado, California. Rebecca Zahau’s body was exhumed from her resting place in Missouri and on October 28 tested for signs of murder by Dr. Cyril Wecht, an outspoken Pittsburgh pathologist known for courting controversy for his explosive findings in some of America’s more notorious death mysteries.
“We endorse the family’s effort to search for closure to this terrible tragedy and will stand with them going forward as they navigate through their grieving process,” a Dr. Phil spokesman said. Numerous media websites have reported that the CBS show paid for the body to be exhumed for further testing. Other sites have said that the show donated money to a fund set up to continue the investigation into her death.
“We have a Rebecca Zahau fund and we are always looking for help,” said Zahau family attorney Anne Bremner. “There is licensing of photos and things like that. We have had some help along the way.”
The decision to air the show has drawn criticism from a number of media critics, including a Forbes columnist who described it as a “gruesome ratings stunt,” as well as the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which investigated Zahau’s death.
“What is the point of the show?” said sheriff’s public affairs director Jan Caldwell. “To spike ratings? It is at the cost and mental health of the family. It is so distasteful for Rebecca and poor little Max… It is a sad commentary on American society that we are so caught up in this from the O.J. Simpson trial, Lindsay Lohan to Michael Jackson. It is voyeuristic. When it applies to this tragedy it is unspeakable.”
“There is no argument this is an odd but not an unprecedented suicide but it would be an incredibly bizarre homicide,” added Caldwell. “If you are going to stage a homicide, you aren’t going to do it like this. No sexual assault. No signs of a struggle… It doesn’t make sense. It is ridiculous beyond the point of ludicrous.”
Caldwell said show producers asked the police department to participate but they declined. “We have no desire to partake in this salacious retelling of events. We aren’t going to go on Dr. Drew, or Dr. Phil, or Jane Velez-Mitchell.”
However, Caldwell said that the department would be willing to reopen the investigation if any credible new evidence was found, but “to date there has been a lot of chatter but no one has brought us evidence.”
It is the latest in a case that has provided more twists and turns than an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Because of the bizarre nature of her death, there has been widespread speculation as to what really happened to the certified ophthalmic technician. Her death has spawned a macabre cult following, as well as budding detectives who have publicly questioned the police findings, including a San Diego television station, which staged their own reenactment of the hanging scene using a 100-pound punching bag to represent Zahau’s body.
It took nearly two months for the police to determine whether Zahau, a Burmese immigrant who began dating the pharmaceutical mogul about two years ago, committed suicide or was a victim of foul play. During that time, questions were raised on media websites about whether Shacknai, who made his fortune producing acne treatments and Dysport, a competitor of Botox, had anything to do with his girlfriend’s death.
On September 2, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department concluded that Zahau had committed suicide because she felt responsible for Shacknai’s son Max’s fatal accident two days before. The six-year-old boy toppled over a staircase railing while in her care and plunged 9 feet, sustaining fatal injuries.
The police determined that Zahau bound her own hands and feet with a thick red rope and hanged herself naked off the second-floor balcony of a guest bedroom.
Investigators said they found her fingerprints on a knife that was used to cut the rope in the guest bedroom and on the balcony door, her DNA evidence on the rope and leg of the bed, and her toe impressions on the balcony floor, which looked like her feet were bound before she tumbled over the balcony. Also, toxicology testing indicated there were no drugs or alcohol in her system.
Adding to the mystery police found a message written in black paint on the door of the guest room that read: “She saved him, can you save her.”
Despite the announcement, speculation continued on the blogosphere. Zahau’s family and Seattle attorney Bremner immediately disputed the findings, said that Zahau would never commit suicide, and charged the investigation was incomplete. Soon afterwards, Bremner and the family established two websites, one of which solicits donations so they can continue with their investigation.
Dr. Cyril Wecht reviewed the autopsy findings, and said that Zahau had suspicious bruising on the top of her head, which caused bleeding underneath her scalp. The injury looked similar to blunt force trauma, he argued. He also stated that the police findings were premature and the death should have been ruled undetermined. Wecht also questioned the presence of possible tape residue on her legs, and that part of a shirt was stuffed into her mouth when her body was found.
Wecht’s participation has also drawn criticism. He is a controversial figure in his own right. In the 1970’s, he made headlines by challenging the Warren Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone shooter in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Wecht claimed that Kennedy was shot twice, and that two gunmen were involved. After reviewing the autopsy results on JonBenet Ramsey, Wecht piped in, claiming that the child’s death was most likely an accident, the result of a perverse, ritualistic sex game performed by her father.
Then, in 2006, Wecht resigned his post as the Allegheny County Coroner after he was indicted by a federal grand jury on 84 counts, alleging that he among other things forced public employees to transport him and relatives to the airport, ordered them to walk his dog and buy tennis balls and nostril swimming plugs, used his office to garner private business, and traded unclaimed corpses for lab space at a university. However, a judge declared a mistrial, and the remaining charges were dropped by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Shortly after the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department released their findings, Bremner asked Wecht to perform the second autopsy. In addition, Zahau’s family requested the police files, which include audio recordings of the interviews, investigator’s notes as well as photographs from the sheriff’s department to look through.
After reviewing the files, Bremner said she is even more convinced that Zahau didn’t take her own life. “I am convinced even more that it wasn’t a suicide,” she said. “It requires further investigation. I think it was a rush to judgement.”
Bremner, who is reportedly working with a Seattle literary agents to find a true crime author to write a book about the case, said she plans to hold a press conference sometime this week to release new information about the case, such as information surrounding three mysterious black gloves found in the home, a clump of hair discovered on a shower wall, and a pair of women’s underwear discarded in the garbage in the guest house. Her goal, she said, is to get “an independent investigation ordered by the [state Attorney General’s Office,].”
However, that seems unlikely. In September, Shacknai’s asked the Attorney General’s Office to review the case but his request was denied because the California Department of Justice only reviews local investigations under narrow circumstances such as a conflict or if a police department needs assistance.
Bremner said that if the Attorney General’s Office refuses to reopen the investigation, the family may file a wrongful death lawsuit. Last week, Shacknai sold the historic mansion to real estate investors who plan to refurbish the 27-room mansion for resale.